Kicking off the year of #UNshame

When you’re fifty-two, you don’t expect to get lucky. Life has given you enough knocks to know to take it steady. The day I heard I’d been short-listed for the Jerwood-Arvon Poetry Mentorship – I didn’t believe it.

When I got to the interview, I had forty-five minutes to talk about my work to poet Pascale Petit and Joe Bibby from Arvon. I told them I wanted to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood through the poems in albums without photos.

With every word I said, the world around me seemed to get larger, and more full of possibility. Not just for myself, but for other people making lives, as I am, in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Back home, I sat stunned, holding the dog, and not seeing the TV. I could hardly take it in when Joe Bibby rang the next day to say I’d been selected.  My year of #UNshame was kicking off.

There was a week to send Pascale Petit twenty new poems, and get the beloved dog taken care of, before the initial retreat with the other eleven mentees at Totleigh Barton in Devon on 13 March 2017.

Irrespective of age, everyone seemed as shell-shocked as me when we wound our way through the tight, green Devon lanes. Waiting in a cup in the hills was the white walled, thatched manor house which we would make our collective home for the next five days.

Our welcome cream tea was served at a long refectory table in the wooden beamed dining hall which doubled as workshop. Every footstep we took, floorboards seemed to creak around us.

It was as if the house was bound together with threads of sound. In the days that followed, as poets, novelists and playwrights ate and talked, and work-shopped and walked together, it came to seem as if we were also becoming connected to each other by our shared hopes, experiences and ambitions.

On our first night, we had to introduce what we were working on. Under the rafters of the great barn, I explained that my collection of poems, album without photos, brought together things which couldn’t be seen or recorded any other way.

I said I wanted to document the process of being groomed as a child, and the sexual abuse that followed, but also the life that I have made, and am making, in its wake.

On our last night, we had to perform five minutes of our work to each other. My opening poem, ‘december night’ was a summoning to my child self to be with us at the reading.

The reaction I saw on everyone’s faces let me know that she was indeed with us. I read what I had written about being groomed on the night train to Victoria, about how it felt after my dad died, about what a school run was like when it took you back to the bed in which you would be abused.

My child self stayed with us as I finished with a poem about starving myself to freedom. I had also spoken for other voiceless children for whom I want to bear witness as I chart my way through my mentorship year towards the completion and publication of album without photos.

 The evening, and the week, ended on a note of euphoria generated by the news that the novelists’ mentor, Jacob Ross, had won the inaugural Jhalak prize. We couldn’t believe that he had chosen to sit listening to us all read when he could have been at the awards ceremony in London.

It may have been raining outside, but Jacob’s win filled the vast space of the barn with applause and exuberance until it seemed as if we were swimming in champagne with a fireworks display of flashbulbs saluting him.